Quran Read-A-Long: Al’-Imran 149-155 Criticizes the Archers at the Battle of Uhud

149-150 These verses continue the notion that I began with last week and that Kay reinforced: that these supreme themes run through the Quran and add strength and consistency to each of the  particular topics at hand.

No God But God – Seriously, People

Equating anything with God or claiming that anything, whether object, person, or whatever else is comparable to God is an enormous no-no. As we’ve discussed, this was both an internal Arab problem partially resulting in Mohammed’s flight to Mecca and a problem Islam took up with religions.

Internally speaking, the Arab tribes, particularly the Quryash, worshipped in a few other locations outside of Mecca and considered those places the locations of other divinities. Externally speaking, Christianity was a huge problem for the Muslims because of the divine nature in which Jesus was rendered. As verse 151 says, God never gave any reason ever for people to believe that anything/one but Him was God or divine. It seems more likely, though, that amongst these verses the references are to the Quryash since the Battle of Uhud is about to be mentioned. The reference in verse 154 to “pagan ignorance” also makes it seem as though the ascription here concerns the Quryash. However, at the same time, this entire surah is about the house of Mary’s father, so . . .

Tisk, Tisk, Archers

The first half of 152, as Asad points out, is a reference to the archers abandonment of their post, despite Mohammed’s explicit instruction that they not leave their strategic vantage point until he commanded so. Believing the Battle of Uhud won, they left their post and the Muslim army was no longer safely covered from above. Before this disobedience, God was allowing the Muslims to win. The Quran makes clear that this experience for the archers was a test in their conviction and obedience and that those who remained and died surely went to Heaven.

The dialogue provided in verse 155 is one of the longer ones that we’ve seen and, to me, seems to indicate the controversy and inner conflict resulting from the Battle of Uhud and the archers’ behavior. If there was a lot of back and forth that ended up in the Quran then it seems to me that these kinds of conversations were happening amongst the Muslims: lots of accusations, lots of problems, lots of need for resolution and the assignment of blame. This was a difficult experience and very trying for the fledgling Muslim community, and this verse indicates the degree to which people were struggling with the fallout. As the Quran often does, it assigns the result of people’s actions to God, but it is made clear that those who were tested and failed would be punished.

The following are Asad’s words, which I think are perfect and which I could never have communicated myself from the starred part in verses 155:

*“This is an illustration of a significant Qur’anic doctrine, which can be thus summarized: “Satan’s influence” on man is not the primary cause of sin but its first consequence: that is to say, a consequence of a person’s own attitude of mind which in moments of moral crisis induces him to choose the easier, and seemingly more pleasant, of the alternatives open to him, and thus to become guilty of a sin, whether by commission or omission. Thus, God’s “causing” a person to commit a sin is conditional upon the existence, in the individual concerned, of an attitude of mind which makes him prone to commit such a sin: which, in its turn, presupposes man’s free will – that is, the ability to make, within certain limitations, a conscious choice between two or more possible courses of action.”

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Al’-Imran 149-155

149. O YOU who have attained to faith! If you pay heed to those who are bent on denying the truth, they will cause you to turn back on your heels, and you will be the losers. 150. Nay, but God alone is your Lord Supreme, and His is the best succor. 151. Into the hearts of those who are bent on denying the truth We shall cast dread in return for their ascribing divinity, side by side with God, to other beings – [something] for which He has never bestowed any warrant from on high; and their goal is the fire – and how evil that abode of evildoers! 152. AND, INDEED, God made good His promise unto you when, by His leave, you were about to destroy your foes – until the moment when you lost heart and acted contrary to the [Prophet’s] command, and disobeyed after He had brought you within view of that [victory] for which you were longing. There were among you such as cared for this world [alone], just as there were among you such as cared for the life to come: whereupon, in order that He might put you to a test, He prevented you from defeating your foes. But now He has effaced your sin: for God is limitless in His bounty unto the believers. 153. [Remember the time] when you fled, paying no heed to anyone, while at your rear the Apostle was calling out to you – wherefore He requited you with woe in return for [the Apostle’s] woe, so that you should not grieve [merely] over what had escaped you, nor over what had befallen you: for God is aware of all that you do. 154. Then, after this woe, He sent down upon you a sense of security, an inner calm which enfolded some of you, whereas the others, who cared mainly for themselves, entertained wrong thoughts about God – thoughts of pagan ignorance – saying, “Did we, then, have any power of decision [in this matter]?” Say: “Verily, all power of decision does rest with God” – [but as for them,] they are trying to conceal within themselves that [weakness of faith] which they would not reveal unto thee, [O Prophet, by] saying, “If we had any power of decision, we would not have left so many dead behind.” Say [unto them]: “Even if you had remained in your homes, those [of you] whose death had been ordained would indeed have gone forth to the places where they were destined to lie down.” And [all this befell you] so that God might put to a test all that you harbor in your bosoms, and render your innermost hearts pure of all dross: for God is aware of what is in the hearts [of men]. 155. Behold, as for those of you who turned away [from their duty] on the day when the two hosts met in battle – Satan caused them to stumble only by means of something that they [themselves] had done.* But now God has effaced this sin of theirs: verily, God is much-forgiving, forbearing.

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Quran Read-A-Long: Al’-Imran 121-129 Recall the Battle of Uhud

As Asad tells us, these verses can hardly be understood without an understanding of the Battle of Uhud, and so Asad provides us with a rousing description of this marked battle between the Muslim forces of Medina and the Quryash forces from Mecca. Significantly, Asad notes that many of the verses of this surah come from this time, and I’m wondering if he means from here forward or other verses that we’ve already seen (and if so, which ones).

The Quran is very good at, as we’ve discussed many times, providing an eternal lesson out of the experiences of the Muslims of Mohammed’s day. For instance, immediately preceding this battle, 300 soldiers abandoned the Muslim army and two other leaders nearly left with their men as well, but ultimately stayed because God was watching out for the Muslims. The lesson behind the Muslim victory – and I call it a victory because when an army of that small size takes on and survives the assault of a larger force as it did, the fight can only have been but a victory – is that you must place your trust in God in order to be victorious (whether at battle or life). My interpolated point was not to discount the difficulties of the battle, including Mohammed’s injury, but I do think it’s something else that they won – and an important lesson too.

124. Is there something significant in the number of 3000 angels? What about 5000 in the following verse? If these numbers do not have known significance before these verses were written, do they come to have significance in later Islamic thought? Does 3000 angels represent 10 times the number of people who abandoned the Muslim forces? If so, what is 5000?

Not to continue this thread of questions, but are the last two verses a mild chastisement of Mohammed’s behavior for proclaiming certain things about people’s potential forgiveness by God? That is what Asad seems to imply. At the same time, it’s that same reminder that I recall somewhere from The Cow in which we are told that we can have no idea who God will and won’t forgive and let into heaven and the very act of saying that someone will be going to either place is cause enough for not being admitted into heaven. Which verses were those?

What else can you tell us about these verses?

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Al’-Imran 121-129

121. AND [remember, O Prophet, the day] when thou didst set out from thy home at early morn to place the believers in battle array. And God was all-hearing, all-knowing 122. when two groups from among you were about to lose heart, although God was near unto them and it is in God that the believers must place their trust: 123. for, indeed, God did succour you at Badr, when you were utterly weak. Remain, then, conscious of God, so that you might have cause to be grateful. 124. [And remember] when thou didst say unto the believers: “Is it not enough for you [to know] that your Sustainer will aid you with three thousand angels sent down [from on high]? 125. Nay, but if you are patient in adversity and conscious of Him, and the enemy should fall upon you of a sudden, your Sustainer will aid you with five thousand angels swooping down!” 126. And God ordained this [to be said by His Apostle] only as a glad tiding for you, and that your hearts should thereby be set at rest – since no succour can come from any save God, the Almighty, the Truly Wise – 127. [and] that [through you] He might destroy some of those who were bent on denying the truth, and so abase the others that they would withdraw in utter hopelessness. 128.[And] it is in no wise for thee [O Prophet] to decide whether He shall accept their repentance or chastise them – for, behold, they are but wrongdoers, 129. whereas unto God belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth: He forgives whom He wills, and He chastises whom He wills; and God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.

Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 249-253 Gives Us Some Lessons From the Bible…Sort Of

But for the lesson that Asad points out (that faith is nothing without a disregard of material interests), I can’t figure out why Saul would tell his men that God is testing them based on their ability not to drink the water. From the previous few verses we know that we’ve turned to a discussion of ancient Israel, and it seems as though the Quran is teaching us what value the stories should have.

As this story about Saul, the first king of ancient Israelite, and his army is not in the Bible, I wonder where Mohammed would have heard such a story. If these verses are Medinan, then there are a few Jewish tribes around, some of whose members had converted, and others whom Muhammed would have just interacted with in the day to day. At this time, the Jews, I believe, were communicating a number of elements from their religion and scriptures to Mohammed so I’m guessing he’s learning quite a bit that is winding up in the Quran.

That said, this verse seems particularly fitting for this time period because of the escalation in tensions with the Quryash in Mecca. The Muslims early victory in the first real battle between them and the Quryash would have surely seemed like a blessing sent from heaven – one they could have never received without the faith they had and the sacrifices they were making to live away from their families and kinsmen. And the Muslims were, of course, the underdogs as the end of verse 249 suggests. Thus, lessons from the Bible and the Jews would have been most appropriate at this time.

What I wonder, though, is where this particular story came from. Was it a legend amongst the Jews that was communicated to Mohammed as they discussed the Bible, or was it something that was revealed to Mohammed and made sense after these discussions? I would love to see a book that traced the origins (to whatever extent possible) of the bible-related tales in the Quran that aren’t actually in the Bible. That would be fantastic.

On a similar note, I’m pondering the portrayal of the story with David and Goliath, only because of the different way that the Bible recounts this story – that David came later to the battleground because he was not part of Saul’s forces. Then he slew Goliath. These verses make it sound as though David was there, slew Goliath and then God loved him. Perhaps this is just the Quran abbreviating the story to its essentials since what is relevant in the Bible is not as relevant here, or when the story was getting summarized, it became naturally abridged this way.

In any case, this also seems to me to be a particularly Medinan notion because it justifies the need to fight and do battle: without the ability to defend oneself, corrupt people would have taken over everything. At a time when the early Muslim community in Medina would have been learning that it were going to have to take on a military aspect, it would have been important that they be reassured about the necessary steps to come. Not that fighting wasn’t already a part of Arab tribal life in the years before Mohammed, but the Quryash had not been fighting for a while at this point and reminding them of the need to defened themselves and the divine justifications for doing so would have been crucial.

My guess upon reading verse 253 was that the person God spoke to Himself was Moses and Asad confirmed that suspicion in his note on this verse. That makes Moses, Jesus and Mohammed those people to whom God communicated His messages in a comprehensive way. The latter part of verse 253 is quite a note about Free Will and Human Nature.

Can you help me flesh out anything that I’ve said about these verses, correct anything or add anything that I missed? Thanks so much for being a part of Quran Read-A-Long!

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The Cow 249-253

249 And when Saul set out with his forces, he said: “Behold, God will now try you by a river: he who shall drink of it will not belong to me, whereas he who shall refrain from tasting it – he, indeed, will belong to me; but forgiven shall be he who shall scoop up but a single handful.” However, save for a few of them, they all drank [their fill] of it. And as soon as he and those who had kept faith with him had crossed the river, the others said: “No strength have we today [to stand up] against Goliath and his forces!” [Yet] those who knew with certainty that they were destined to meet God, replied: “How often has a small host overcome a great host by God’s leave! For God is with those who are patient in adversity.” 250. And when they came face to face with Goliath and his forces, they prayed: “O our Sustainer! Shower us with patience in adversity, and make firm our steps, and succor us against the people who deny the truth!” 251. And thereupon, by God’s leave, they routed them. And David slew Goliath; and God bestowed upon him dominion, and wisdom, and imparted to him the knowledge of whatever He willed. And if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another,* corruption would surely overwhelm the earth: but God is limitless in His bounty unto all the worlds. 252. These are God’s messages: We convey them unto thee, [O Prophet,] setting forth the truth-for, verily, thou art among those who have been entrusted with a message. 253 Some of these apostles have We endowed more highly than others: among them were such as were spoken to by God [Himself], and some He has raised yet higher.’ And We vouchsafed unto Jesus, the son of Mary, all evidence of the truth, and strengthened him with holy inspiration. And if God had so willed, they who succeeded those [apostles] would not have contended with one another after all evidence of the truth had come to them; but [as it was,] they did take to divergent views, and some of them attained to faith, while some of them came to deny the truth. Yet if God had so willed, they would not have contended with one another: but God does whatever He wills.